Monday, November 18, 2013

Does a goldfish have a three second memory and other questions: Interview with fish vet Richmond Loh

Fish have feelings too and can benefit from environmental enrichment, a varied diet and (with some species) companionship).
How do you know when your Siamese fighting fish is sick? Do goldfish really have a three second memory? What can you do to enrich the life of your pet fish? What exactly does a fish vet do? Western Australian fish vet RichmondLoh answered SAT’s burning questions. (And in case you were wondering, his title is Dr Richmond Loh DipProjMgt BSc BVMS MPhil (Pathology) Murdoch MANZCVS (Aquatics and Pathobiology) CertAqV).

Can you tell us a bit about what you do?
I predominantly work with people’s pet fish, work out why they’re sick or dying and provide a cure. Other clients I work with include aquarium retailers, public aquaria and aquaculturists. On a regular basis, I teach at Murdoch University and volunteer my time on committees such as those of the World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association. I’m also active on various social media platforms.

Do fish vets mostly do house calls?
Yes, my fish work almost entirely involves house calls or site visits. There is no substitute. You gain a lot of insights to the life support systems they have in place, get to inspect all the medicines they had tried but failed, get to check their water quality and you have access to multiple fish to perform diagnostic testing on.

The fish vet underwater.
How did you become a fish vet?
I have always been interested in animals and aquatic life since a very young age. I used to trawl the drains and rivers for fish back in Malaysia. Animals are beautiful and every one of them is different and are fascinating. Becoming a veterinarian and to work with fish was a natural progression.

What types of fish do you treat?
My main clients are owners of koi and goldfish. The primary reasons for this is that they are recognisable as individuals, have long lifespans and owners form an emotional bond with them. Other popular types of fish include Siamese fighters, catfish, cichlids, sharks and of course, clownfish. I also see the “four-legged varieties” that are called Mexican walking fish. (I call them “fish impersonators”).

What are common conditions you see in pet fish?
I mostly see issues with water quality, parasites and bacterial infections. The main reasons for these include lack of regular water monitoring, overstocking, new fish or plant introductions and stress.

Dr Loh, who has undergone postgraduate training in pathology,
can wield a microscope.
True or false: goldfish have a three second memory. What are the implications here?
I was thinking this question was going to crop up. It’s a common party joke that annoys me a lot. Let me answer this question with a question. Say you only feed your fish once a day, at the same time each day… do they remember where and when you’re going to feed them next?

(The answer is YES they do know, and this 24-hours is a lot more than the purported 3 second memory).

There is a heap of scientific literature that support fish being intelligent sentient beings. So the implication for us as fish owners is that we need to pay them more attention.

What kind of environmental enrichment can pet owners provide fish?
There are so many things available nowadays that can enrich your pet fish’s environment. You could go with all natural items such as bog wood, rockeries, plants and different substrates. You might like artificial items such as resin or plastic ships, skulls and more. There are also artificial plants and rocks that look so real. Just drop in at your local fish shop and you’ll be amazed at what you can get.

A varied diet is also good for your fish. You can go with a blend of manufactured dry or semi-moist foods, frozen foods and live foods.

In addition to dietary variety, companionship is important. Depending on what type of fish they are, companions of the same species or other species might be a good thing.

This Archer fish spat at my camera! (Exceptional aim).
Are there activities that people can perform (eg interaction or training) that will benefit their fish?
The most training I’ve ever done with my own pet fishes are for them to jump up for food. I’ve seen on the internet some have trained their goldfish to swim through hoops, play basketball and soccer! That’s pretty amazing stuff.

What are the clinical signs of illness in pet fish?
The very first warning sign that things aren’t right is when they go off their food. Other clinical signs of illness include clamped fins, scratching/flashing, development of lesions on the body, producing excess mucus, becoming listless and more.

The fish vet with Gwen Stefani!
Can fish feel pain and what can you do about it?
It is certain that fish do feel pain. The main debate now (which is all very academic), is around whether fish feel pain the same way that humans do. Either way, there is no good reason to inflict pain on another living creature.
If you’re referring to the euthanasia of fish or slaughter, the mode that causes least distress and pain is recommended. Pet fish can be euthanased with an anaesthetic overdose. Food fish should be percussed and bled out and with the additional option of pithing the brain.

Do you have any advice for veterinary students/veterinarians keen to work with fish?
There is now a lot of information available (through courses such as Aquavet, Seavet, Marvet and others) for veterinarians and students to get all the basics down pat. There are textbooks and journals and of course, the internet. But nothing substitutes putting yourself out there to gain your own firsthand experience. There are aquatic veterinary groups you can join in your own region and my favourite, being the World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association.

Fish vet Dr Richmond Loh inspects tanks.
You can follow Dr Loh on his Facebook or visit his YouTube channel for fish tips.